February 17, 2015
Dear Mrs Ward,
I’ve been meaning to write to you for a while. Twenty years ago, I never would have thought that you would be the most influential teacher in my life. After all, Life Skills was just that class we had the semester we didn’t have gym. It was just a fancy name for health class. Except that it wasn’t. It was so much more than that. And I’ve long lost track of the number of times I’ve begun a sentence by saying, “Mrs Ward, my middle school Life Skills teacher, taught us…” I probably say it almost as many times as I say “I heard the most interesting thing on NPR.”
During my brief career as a classroom teacher (I much prefer the one-on-one interaction of tutoring), I thought of you. As part of our peace education curriculum, we taught I Feel statements. And I remembered the formula you taught us, and I used that system instead of the one in the curriculum. The curriculum wanted us to teach students to say “I feel X when you Y.” But I remembered that you told us to flip it. We should start with the person’s name because they’d be more likely to pay attention if we started by speaking about them and not us. And you told us not to stop with just our feelings; we should explain why their action made us feel the way it did. For example,
Former best friend, when you asked me to help you get a job interview after five months of silence following the death of my daughter, I felt hurt because it showed that our relationship was only about me taking care of you and never about you taking care of me.
And even though in the angst of middle school we were focused on hurt feelings, you encouraged us to use the formula when people did things that made us happy.
Dr Winter, when you cried at my appointment the other week, I felt comforted because it validated that my fears are coming from a very rational place.
And then there are the little things. Don’t buy the most expensive item, and don’t buy the cheapest. The cheapest won’t be high quality, but the most expensive won’t be worth the price. Basic football rules. That when your water breaks it may be a gush or it may just be a trickle. (I’ve been remembering that tidbit frequently the past week.)
But the real reason I’ve been thinking so much about you of late is because of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and her Five Stages of Grief. I am grateful that you were the first person who taught me about the five stages of grief. You taught us that acceptance is not a terminal stage, that grief is a cycle and each of those stages can recur years later. As I’ve grieved over the death of my daughter, I’ve never thought that I’m doing it wrong. I’ve never tried to reach an end. You were the first person to teach me about grief, and like every other nugget of wisdom that I stored away, that was a lesson I never forgot.
I’m saddened to think that a class such as Life Skills probably no longer exists. It just doesn’t fit into the current paradigm of teaching things that can be assessed on a standardized test. Clearly, Life Skills is not one of those classes. It only took me 20 years to realize that it’s one of the most important classes I ever took.
Mrs Ward, when you taught us Life Skills, we should have felt lucky because you really and truly helped prepare us for adulthood. Thank you for those three semesters and all of the lessons they contained.